Clash: Artifacts Of Chaos - Punching Above (Review)
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos
Released: March 9th, 2023
Developer: ACE Team
Systems: PC, PS4/5 (reviewed), Xbox One/XS
“The Corwids are not slaves of reality, so they can be insane. Oxameter just walks in a straight line without letting anything change his path... and that's what Oxameter does.
Erminia peed on herself and starved to death anonymously…”
This is how Zeno Clash was introduced by ACE Team nearly fifteen years ago, and it was a hell of a sales pitch. After all this time, there’s still nothing like it, a first-person brawler set in a violent preliterate world where a giant with bird legs can be “Father-Mother” to a clan of bizarre manimals, and people routinely go mad by choice in self-defeating demonstrations of liberty.
Zeno Clash and its sequel were hard to love as games, janky as they were, but remained thoroughly captivating as experiences, and at times I become obsessed with the series. It was thanks to my latest recent fixation I learned, months after the fact, that a brand new game set in the realm of Zenozoik had released this year. Clash: Artifacts of Chaos had somehow completely gotten by me until I stumbled on it by chance, and I’m so very glad I finally caught wind. Good lord am I glad!
Clash is as fascinating an experience as its predecessors and it’s fantastic as a game. In every way, it’s punching so far above what came before.
Artifacts of Chaos looks and feels dramatically different from the Zeno Clash titles, featuring a third-person perspective shift and a more cartoony art style embellished with lined texturing to give everything a slight hand-drawn quality. Characters are just as strange looking as ever though, with all manner of unsettling chimera to battle and a protagonist who was clearly not designed to sell plushies. He’s so wrinkly... so lumpy... so… pubic. So very, very pubic.
That said, the “Boy” who accompanies our hideous hero may well be the first unequivocally cute character in the series, so… swings and roundabouts.
Artifacts of Chaos stars a walking testicular lump named Pseudo whose life as a lonely hermit is upended when he chooses to protect an adorable ball of feathers from Gemini, Zenozoik’s de facto ruler. A giant of a woman, she's got multiple heads that have mostly died because that's the kind of crapsack world we're dealing with. Hounded by a colorful cast of mercenaries, Pseudo and the Boy scour the land for a means to defeat Gemini in a story about loneliness, emotional attachment, and the series’ long running examination of what freedom means.
Zenozoik is governed by one law, fittingly named the One Law. It decrees physical combat be preceded by a ritualistic dice game that imposes penalties on whomever loses. These disadvantages are enforced by the use of Artifacts selected by each combatant before they start lobbing dice. Gemini’s so-called Prime Artifact is feared as the most deadly of all, and Pseudo plans to gather up the Great Shield Artifacts that are said to be the only things capable of countering her.
In gameplay terms, players may invoke the One Law before starting a fight with intelligent creatures - chiefly the recurring cavalcade of bounty hunters sent by Gemini. By challenging an opponent and selecting one of your Artifacts, you gamble to gain any number of advantages while risking the punishment for losing - one potential result grants the winner a single uncontested strike, while others force the loser to drink poison or get covered in bait to make a wild creature attack them during combat. The most interesting to me is the Pact Artifact, which will make the loser fight alongside you if you win a later Ritual against someone else after choosing the Summon Artifact.
It just occurred to me that enemies never use the Pact on the player (as far as I saw), and that would have made for a really cool event. ACE Team can have that one if they ever do this again.
Dice-governed combat stipulations are a really creative idea, and the corresponding minigame is cooler than I expected it to be. It’s also complete and total bollocks in the most brilliant way possible. I’ll explain why later.
For now, let’s talk about mechanics or I’ll never get around to it. Players choose one of three martial arts styles when starting the game, though more can be learned by exploring the world and two may be equipped at any given time. Styles govern how Pseudo’s basic attacks and combos work - Claw style, for example, has him swing his arms in wide sweeping attacks, while Boxing is characterized by quick and sharp jabs punctuated with a swinging kick. Additionally, up to three special moves can be equipped and pulled off with simple commands, starting with a simple spin kick and later including such techniques as projectiles, punch flurries, or even blinking teleports.
There’s a surprising variety of fighting styles and unique attacks with versatile applications. The spinning kick is just as much a defensive move as an offensive one when used smartly, since Pseudo’s animation sees him crouching before attacking and subsequently ducking any punches swung his way. There's something about that I simply relish.
Dodging is presented as an essential part of combat, and most of Pseudo's attacks are swiftly canceled by an evasive maneuver that is, itself, cancellable into more attacks. The controls aren’t quite as responsive as needed to fully pull off the dancelike flow Clash is attempting, but it’s nonetheless a solid system with an impressive diversity in terms of both offense and defense.
The original Zeno Clash is given a nod with the ability to switch perspectives after building up an aggression meter. By triggering first-person mode, you’ll temporarily fight in a manner identical to the first two installments (you even use Ghat's double fist thrust), with the goal of scoring an unbroken hit chain and initiating a powerful finishing blow. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but it’s a sweet feature. It also proves critical when facing multiple enemies, since first-person mode makes surrounding opponents less aggressive while you focus on one of the bastards.
Locking onto enemies is irritatingly janky, as Pseudo doesn’t track them with a great deal of accuracy. This is most apparent when parrying enemy projectiles or firing your own, since locking on will only send ranged attacks in a target’s general direction and you’ll need to manipulate the camera to have any influence over what actually gets hit (the camera moves Pseudo's head, which seems to be what dictates aiming). Even up close, melee attacks might miss without frequent camera turns, and there are times when locking on actually makes you less accurate in a scrap.
Dodging could stand to have some larger invulnerability windows, since evasion doesn’t feel as reliable or safe as the opening tutorial insists. You can also only cancel into a dodge after successfully landing an attack, and given how easy it is to miss, counting on cancellation too much isn’t advisable.
Contrarily, I’ve found dodging and parrying far less dependable than exploiting the animations of special attacks to avoid and counter damage. As well as the Spin Kick, a number of other techniques behave in such a way as to faithfully avoid incoming damage and dish some out in return (pro tip: the flurry is great for stunlocking solo combatants). Using special attacks this way feels pretty cool, but I’m not sure all that functionality was specifically intended by the game, not with how hard it sells the dodge mechanic while failing to highlight the alternatives.
A few of the fights can generally come off as unfair, with battles against multiple opponents offering the risk of cheap shots galore and harassment from all sides. This is mitigated somewhat by taking advantage of the series’ classic love of friendly fire, since enemy attacks will hit anything they connect with regardless of alliance. Tricking opponents into battering each other is, in fact, one of the most reliable tactics in the game. Nevertheless, certain combinations of enemies are so good at covering gaps in their individual offense that you’ll feel downright bullied at times.
Oh, and be aware that Summoned allies behave exactly how they do when fought as enemies. If you’ve bound some huge brute to a Pact Artifact, be sure to keep out of the way when you call them - their fists won’t discriminate.
The One Law, as noted earlier, may be invoked before most fights against non-wildlife, though you don’t have to issue the challenge. Players roll their dice on a circular board, then take turns using a series of equippable T’chaks - modifiers that do things like reduce the score of dice within a set radius, flip a die over, or even outright destroy them. Once all T’chaks are used, the highest scorer gets to use their Artifact.
During the campaign, you’ll get to buy more dice, T’chaks, and T’chak slots from a lanky bat-like merchant named Eo, potentially giving you a lot of fun tools to play with. The Ritual itself is also just a damn good dice game, with incredibly simple rules flavored by inventive modifiers. It’s got enough going on to serve an expanded role in future sequels, if not support its own whole spin-off game. Either case is something I’d Iike to see.
As a way to raise the stakes in combat, the Ritual’s a fine idea, though honestly I’ve found it quite aggravating in context due to how often enemies are just better equipped to win, and how in my experience most Rituals end with either a loss or a tie. I don’t feel I got to truly enjoy the use of Artifacts since I rarely got to use them. Luck all too frequently sided against me and enemies regularly got better T’chaks sooner than I could buy them.
Only towards the very end did I encounter some opponents who didn’t outpace my investment in the subgame, finally justifying my constant purchasing of new dice and T’chak slots. I enjoy the minigame itself, but at times I found myself skipping out on issuing a challenge as it just seemed like the reward wasn't worth risking it.
The Ritual is great when it works out, though. Forcing an opponent to wear a fish on their head just to humiliate them, or summoning the massive bugger that gave you grief several fights ago, that’s a real laugh. Whether you’ve made someone tether themselves to a short rope or covered the arena in fog so a would-be gang attack becomes a blinded free-for-all, a favorable Artifact deployment really serves a triumph.
Now, like I said earlier, the best thing about the Ritual is that it’s bollocks. I bloody love that, from a conceptual standpoint, the entire One Law thing is gloriously moronic.
Nobody is making these people do stupid shit like allowing their opponents to break planks over their backs or inviting hornets to sting them when they stop moving. Despite their fancy designs and imposing iconography, it’s made quite clear that Artifacts aren’t magical in the least, and in a world without any other rules or legal enforcement, the only reason this One Law has any power is the fact it’s unquestioningly followed.
None of these Artifacts - regarded by most Zenos as binding and almighty - contain any real power outside the reverence lent to them. In fact, when encountering the Corwids of the Free, players will soon find they can’t invoke the Law at all because Corwids are “too insane” to drink poison when some dice tell them to. How utterly unhinged of them!
By the same token, however, it’s made equally plain that just one rule, even a rule as arbitrary, superstitious, and stupid as the One Law, makes the difference between a violent but stable Zenozoik and a Zenozoik completely swallowed by chaos.
The inherent silliness of the Ritual is just part of what makes Clash such a well written game.
Pseudo and the Boy have a wonderful relationship that grows throughout the story, marked by the fact that the former, while coarse and grizzled, is never once an asshole. Unlike almost every other story of this nature, the archetypal old loner doesn’t resent the kid he’s saddled with - the second he susses out Gemini is going to mistreat the Boy, Pseudo doesn’t pause in his decision to defy her at his own risk, and while he doesn’t sugar coat things for his ward, while he’s prone to teasing or sarcasm, he only ever treats the Boy kindly and becomes more paternal throughout the adventure.
Characters are memorable, the humorous moments are funny as well as touching, and there’s a wonderful array of campy villains, from the hostile theater troupe obeying their cultish Director to the squawking little birdman who promises that you’ll maybe fear him. The Zenos are so well realized, and the story so well developed, that by the end I actually shed a few tears… and that is something less than a handful of games have ever done to me.
Look, I may have written for a BAFTA award winning game, but I envy these narrative chops.
In a stunning break for the series, the voice acting is good. Previous games benefited from hilariously bad performances, but the significant strides in story quality would be done a disservice if Clash’s actors followed suit. Instead, the cast is excellent, and their performances are backed up with a fucking exquisite soundtrack. There’s so much wonderful music, particularly anything with a vocal track, and it’s used to perfectly underscore pivotal story moments or important fights.
The art style I mentioned near the top of the review cannot be praised enough. This is easily one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever played. Zenozoik's weird lands are lavishly dense and rendered with vibrant, contrasting, often garish colors that give everything a distinctly alien appearance. The deliberate ugliness of the characters - a Zeno Clash tradition - is contrasted by just how wonderfully they’re drawn and detailed.
The pencil stroke effect really stands out and, combined with Clash’s unique color palette, ensures no game out there quite looks like this one.
While not open-world, the map is large with plenty of exploration on offer, and it’s optionally seamless - on console, the world’s broken up into separately loaded areas, but you can turn that off if you don’t mind the game’s performance dropping in response. On PS5 at least, loading times are so miniscule as to hardly be a concern.
While levels are structured well enough, signposting is possibly Clash’s weakest element. The word “obtuse” seems to displease ACE Team's Carlos Bordeu, but the quasi-open nature of the world does carry with it the risk of players getting lost, particularly since the environment is so bursting with detailed and densely packed scenery that it's sometimes difficult to tell what’s a valid path and what's just set dressing.
This obtuseness becomes a major problem exactly once - at a certain point in the game, there are two places you can tackle in either order, with one clearly designed to be approached later than the other. What isn’t clear is that the most visible path placed in the most naturally progressive direction is not the place you’re expected to go next. In fact, the only reason I figured out the game had suddenly stopped being linear was that I stumbled on the “correct” order of progression while backtracking to gain extra levels and figure out why the enemies had so many more dice and T’chaks than I did.
I understand that the game doesn't want to “handhold” or whatever, but some of the map layout works against itself. A number of shortcuts also make no sense to me, such as when you can kick a block from a high place to make it climbable even though doing so is no quicker than walking up the hill you just walked to get there, or doors you can open to reach previous destinations are of little significance anymore. The game is full of shortcuts that you don’t ever actually need, which confuses me.
All I’d really want is a way of fast traveling to the town at the center of the map. That would save a lot of backtracking since most locations spin off from it.
It wouldn’t be a Zeno Clash game if something confusing wasn’t happening, and Artifacts of Chaos brings the bafflement with Pseudo’s “Night Form.” By resting at camps, players can choose to explore during the night, which turns the protagonist into a weird wooden skeleton… why not?
Most enemies found in the dark are twisted treelike “nightmare” forms of ones you meet during the day, including boss-level encounters dotted around the map. Walls of thorns that are too sharp for regular Pseudo to pass through can be slipped past when skin’s no longer a concern, and defeating candle-headed monsters at night will clear such walls for daytime exploration. Again, why not?
It’s all very strange, and brings to mind the concept behind the incredibly troubled game Edge of Twilight, but it really helps get mileage out of every locale - it’s always worth going through an area at both day and night, as some items are exclusive to either. You can also fit your skeleton with new body parts found while exploring to boost its stats, similar to how Pseudo acquires and wears armor during the day.
The skeleton thing is odd, but cute. Like the game overall.
Oh, I ought to say that some expected jank is present. I’ve had a few glitches where Pseudo can’t move properly, and one instance of him falling through the floor, as well as a lategame area where the otherwise consistent framerate dips a lot. Nothing that ruins the experience, but bugginess will likely show up through the course of any given playthrough.
There’s some other details I could cram in. A simple brewing system at camp sees Pseudo combine collectible ingredients to make health potions that temporarily boost stats. Weapons can be found, and while they have a loathed durability system, their utility as temporary tools that often aren’t as good as Pseudo’s default martial arts makes the disposability tolerable and sensible. By burning special figurines, martial styles and special attacks are individually leveled, and armor pieces are purchasable from a wrinkled man who gives Pseudo a run for his money in the "looks a bit like a Babadook's ballbag" department.
Oh, and you can acquire hats for the Boy! Hats! They’re friggin' darling. Three of them - a winter hood, mosquito hat, and respirator - even stop him whining while you're exploring the mountain, swamp and Corwid forest, the only times he becomes annoying rather than endearing. It also just shows that you care.
God, I love this game.
Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is a truly beautiful production, far more so than one boasting a cast of animalistic amalgamates and sentient polyps ought to be.
This world of gonks, with each new character more twisted and scrotal than the last, places an alien mask over an undeniably human story, a story of lonely people fighting for connection, individual freedom versus social stability, and how the belief in a law is more powerful than the law itself. With its effective acting, evocative soundtrack, and delicious visuals, Clash’s overall production wonderfully contrasts the aesthetics of ugliness Zeno Clash has always sought to portray.
The fact it’s also a really fun game about punching stuff is a bonus on top of an experience that’s just… well, I’ll say it again - Clash: Artifacts of Chaos is truly beautiful.